Stephens named state superintendent of the year

School district cited for its innovations during pandemic

Dr. Summer Stephens, right, has been named Nevada’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year. One of this year’s highlights occurred in April when every Churchill County School District school received Purple Star designation. With Stephens in April is Capt. Shane Tanner, commanding officer, Naval Air Station Fallon.

Dr. Summer Stephens, right, has been named Nevada’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year. One of this year’s highlights occurred in April when every Churchill County School District school received Purple Star designation. With Stephens in April is Capt. Shane Tanner, commanding officer, Naval Air Station Fallon.

Dr. Summer Stephens, Churchill County School District’s educational leader since 2018, has been named the state’s 2023 superintendent of the year.

The Nevada Association of School Superintendents recently made the announcement, citing Stephens’ collaborative work during the coronavirus pandemic as a major reason for her recognition. She will now compete for the National Superintendent of the Year during the American Association of School Administrators National Conference on Education in February.

“Superintendent Stephens led Nevada’s superintendents through the transition from the pandemic back to full-time, face-to-face instruction,” said Dr. Jesus F. Jara, NASS president. “Dr. Stephens worked tirelessly to ensure NASS perspectives were shared with state legislators and communicated to stakeholders across the state. We appreciate her effective leadership and guidance that ensured school districts received the funding they needed to close student learning gaps. Her leadership was invaluable, and we appreciate her dedication to the cause of public education.”

Stephens, who moved to Churchill County during the summer of 2018 after spending six years as superintendent of the Weston School District Number 7 in Upton, Wyo., said COVID-19 posed unique challenges for providing education to the district’s 3,000 students. She said educators banded together as a team, especially when the governor’s office closed schools during the spring 2020.

Stephens served as the NASS resident during the 2021-22 school year and currently serves as the superintendent representative on the Nevada State Board of Education.
During the 2020-21 school year, Stephens said much input went into a plan to provide instruction to the area’s students. As previously reported in the Lahontan Valley News, Churchill County School District developed a hybrid program that allowed students in-school or at-home of distance instruction. In August 2020, trustees unanimously approved an AM/PM plan, which was known as A & B for in-school instruction. Based on surveys and feedback from parents and teachers, Stephens said the A & B plan emerged as the favorite model. Students in two cohorts (A & B) would attend three-hour sessions in-person at their respective schools.

“We didn’t find anyone else who had our model,” Stephens said.

Stephens, though, said additional federal funding made the new method work because of the extra transportation requirements. She added the district’s transparency with parents also led to the system’s success.

“The trustees on this board have charged her with a lot of responsibility, including some high reaching, student-focused goals,” said Tricia Strasdin, president of the Churchill County School Board. “Summer recognizes the challenges and has worked diligently advocating for rural districts, like ours. The ever-changing climate in education is a difficult one. Managing within federal, state and local mandates are just a part of her job.”
Stephens said it was also important to learn of any dissenting voices to the district’s plan to educate students during COVID-19. It also helped to have the board’s support. Dooley said in her time as a trustee, she considers Stephens to be a bold, innovative and future-driven educator who worked diligently to ensure student success.

Steve Ranson/LVN, file
Dr. Summer Stephens, left, confers with trustee Kathryn Whitaker at the 2020 drive-through Churchill County High School graduation.

The school board also worked with Stephens to provide a meaningful graduation ceremony for seniors despite the pandemic. Stephens and the district trustees adjusted the 2020 graduation for seniors and had a drive-through ceremony at the south end of the football field. The Adult Education program conducted its graduation ceremony outside where students maintained their distance from each other.

“She understands that educating Churchill County School District children is a top priority for Nevada and that schools must be a source of both inspiration and stability,” said Susan Keema, NASS executive director. “Dr. Stephens leads the way in her commitment to equity, innovation, and improvement.”

Stephens said the student-teacher relationships in classroom learning saw growth, especially in the area of Career and Technical Education. She said Churchill County became one of the top school districts in the state for CTE instruction. Additionally, Stephens stated instruction became six classes per day, not seven which had been previously used. The middle school offered four to five block periods each day, and Stephens said this allowed student to delve deeper into the subject matter.

The innovative techniques also contributed to Stephens’ recognition.

"I am extremely humbled to be named the 2023 Superintendent of the Year for the State of Nevada,” Stephens said. “It is an honor to represent a state undergoing a transformation in education, looking to personalize education for all of its children. In the face of the challenges of the pandemic protocols, financial constraints, and staffing shortages, school districts across Nevada have worked together to ensure safety and consistency for our learners and our staff.

“I look forward to the opportunities ahead in Nevada to shape the future of learning through advocacy and collaboration with our students, families, staff, Department of Education and State Board of Education, our parent organizations, our legislators, business and industry partners and our community.”

Stephens and the staff at each school achieved a milestone earlier this year when Churchill County became the first school district in the state to have every school achieve Purple Star status. Every year the Purple Star recognizes schools for their commitment to military families and their dependents who attend grades K-12. The award is given only when the schools check off every qualification in their application.

The school district and the five schools each individually received in late April their Purple Star, beginning with the school district’s central office. Mineral County also achieved Purple Status for all of its schools and was recognized in April for that achievement.

Trustee Kathryn Whitaker said the honor bodes well for Stephens, who received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Doane (Nebraska) College and her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Dr. Stephens has been an advocate for our students since she has worked in our district,” Whitaker pointed out. “Her focus begins and ends with what matters for them, whether that is at the local or state level. Her efforts have shifted the way we view how we can best serve students to help them become critical thinkers, inspired innovators, effective communicators, collaborative and engaged citizens, and lifelong learners — not just for college-bound students, but for all students.”

In addition to her leadership position with the school district, Stephens is also involved with a number of community organizations. Her membership in the Churchill Entrepreneurial Development Association has provided a partnership in both education and labor. She has taken an active role with Churchill County Social Services and the United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra, which has extended its reach into rural Nevada with books and reading programs.

Not only has Stephens spent time with K-12 programs, she has also worked together with the Fallon campus of Western Nevada College in examining the future of education.
“We’ve done a lot of work with Jim Barbee (Churchill County manager),” Stephens said, adding he has been a big help with the agricultural advisory group.

Stephens has worked locally with Dan Slentz at Oasis Online to increase connectivity within the school and between the schools and community. She said a main goal is to work toward the future.

In 2020, the school district along with Western Nevada College’s Fallon campus, Oasis Academy and the Churchill County School District shared CEDA’s Newell Mills award. Newell Mills was an innovator in the dairy industry his entire life, and the award recognizes “Innovation in Industry” that improves the economic viability of the entire community. CEDA recognized the innovation nurtured by its partners in education.

CEDA cited how the school district continues to look toward the future in graduating students ready for their next step. The Nevada Association of School Boards also named the school district as the NASB Governance Team of the Year in 2020 for its innovation.
Stephens will have the opportunity to participate in the AASA National Superintendent of the Year program, which is open to all U.S. superintendents who plan to continue in the profession. The program also honors Canadian and other international school superintendents. The applicants will be measured against the following criteria: Leadership for learning – creativity in successfully meeting the needs of students in the school system; Communication – strength in both personal and organizational communication; Professionalism – constant improvement of administrative knowledge and skills while providing professional development opportunities and motivation to others on the education team; and Community involvement – active participation in local community activities and an understanding of regional, national, and international issues.
A $10,000 college scholarship will be presented in the name of the 2023 AASA National Superintendent of the Year to a student in the high school from which the superintendent graduated or the school now serving the same area.


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